Emotions are chemistry. I know this as theory, but it’s only when my body chemistry has broken down – something I’ve experienced more than once – that the extent of it is visible to me. My emotional reactions are, to a large extent dependent on the chemical responses my body is capable of and inclined to do. I know at a brain level, that’s all messages passing electronically and chemically through the system, and habits of thought form pathways which we easily follow.
Burnout has stripped me of my capacity to create endorphins. I’ve had more than a week of being sorely limited in my scope to feel good. In the past I’ve lost my ability to create adrenaline when needed. I’ve lost other things that affect mood, passion, sense of self. My feeling self can be stripped away by chemical imbalance. My mental self could be stripped away by injury or illness, or corrupted by habit or circumstance.
‘Me’ may mean nothing more than a habitual set of chemical interactions.
And yet, even when my chemical self is compromised and I don’t recognise my own reactions, I still hold a sense of self that I cannot reduce to biochemical explanations, and that seems stronger than the mechanisms. In the depths of depression I may not have much of my usual passion, but I can still hold and believe in the idea of it, I can still identify with it. The ‘me’ in all of this can create deliberate changes to the biochemistry, with different foods, rest, exposure to sunlight, activity levels, choice of environment and so forth. I can craft the context that shapes my chemical self, and I can engineer myself round to being able to think and feel in the ways that are more in-line with my intentions.
I have spent years using meditation and CBT techniques to get my fear responses back where I want them. I’ve learned how to manage anxiety by managing my own thought processes. There is, for all of the chemistry of self, a big role for choice in all of this. How I choose to live shapes the chemistry I have which gives me my emotional life.
That in turn raises the question of who or what is doing the choosing. When I choose to become something other than my situation, something different from my current chemistry, when I set out to modify my reactions and change how I am in the world, some aspect of ‘me’ is taking the entirety of ‘me’ towards being someone I previously was not. It’s easier to think of higher self and soul as being in charge – easier because these words and concepts are at my disposal. I remain fascinated by the way in which consciousness is able to imagine itself into new shapes and able to deliberately create the situations that will get those new shapes.
The general wisdom is, that consciousness is a consequence of physical reality. However, there is a school of thought that the reverse is true, that consciousness creates reality. The more I look at my issues of identity and chemistry, the more convinced I am by the second approach.